It would be difficult to imagine a more suitable backdrop for a piano recital than the Utzon room at the Sydney Opera House with a gradual change from a James Jackson painting to a vivid night sky and sea transport of various kinds taking a look in. If only they could have heard the music, they almost certainly would have dropped anchor because we were treated to a memorable performance.
Sarah Grunstein, born in Sydney to a family of Holocaust survivors, she studied at the Sydney Conservatorium and then continued at the Juilliard school in New York where she gained a Bachelor of Music. She then graduated to a Doctor of Musical Arts degree at City University and took roots in New York where she is still based. She has devoted much of her time to teaching, presenting master-classes and seminars as well as adjudicating at competitions throughout the USA, UK and New Zealand She still has time to perform recitals and play as soloist throughout the world on a regular basis. She has a particular interest in the history of music and pianos and especially the history of the works of J.S.Bach. It is no doubt these leanings that inspired her to give the attentive audience a brief summary and history of each work before playing and this was much appreciated.
Although Beethoven’s Sonata in E major Op 109 is not published as a Fantasia and the two of Opus 27 are, it is the more deserving of that description. A meditative first movement has an improvisatory nature with frequent arpeggios and key and time changes, but of course it must be remembered that the composer could only imagine, not hear the product of his work. As was explained, a sustained pedal morphs the last chord into the Scherzo which explodes pretissimo and fortissimo into a tormented theme with calmer episodes but with no Trio as such. The third movement seems to take the place of a slow movement but develops into a set of Variations many of which are anything but slow and show a contrapuntal technique reminiscent of Bach whose Goldberg Variations are the title of the second recital in the series. All ends quietly with the original subject expressed blandly.
In 1890, after a period of great success, Brahms announced his retirement from composition only to reverse his decision under the influence of the clarinettist Mühlfeld. Apart from the resulting Clarinet Quintet and some songs, he composed many piano works which were out of the mainstream and introspective in nature while he wrote no further orchestral works. The seven pieces making up his Fantasies op 17 are arguably in Sonata form with the two outer Capriccios in D minor surrounding a Scherzo (Allegro passionate) and three intermezzi making up the slow movement. Whatever, he covers the gamut of pianism with themes difficult to pin down, syncopation and alternating two and three beat phrases. The overall effect is one of drama contrasting with intimacy.
Robert Schumann, as self-critical as his good friend Brahms originally wrote his Fantasie in C major op 17 as a memorial to Beethoven but then changed the title to Fantasie later referring to the work as a deep lament for his wife Clara. When he composed it, he was still involved in the well-known battle with the latter’s father. I know of no other work of Schumann which actually uses references to other composer’s music although he does write music in their image (witness Chopin in Carnaval). The reference to Beethoven’s last song from “Die Ferne Geliebte I” in the first movement is repeated and there follows in the Finale, a clear reference to Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat with the beginning of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” in the accompaniment! Even a Chopin Scherzo gets a look in !.Apart from this, the first movement has incredible dotted and syncopated rhythms and at one point seems to be propelling a fleeing herd of wild beasts. The second movement is a complicated Scherzo, again with big stretches and varied rhythms with a calmer Trio section while the final movement is slower perhaps representing the lament for Clara who might have appreciated the above attributions which Schumann never acknowledged. If any piece deserves the title “Fantasie”, this one does.
Following her vivid descriptions, Sarah was able to transpose them into her playing and the result was stunning with headlong passages treated with ease and slower ones with empathy. The programme was innovative and carefully selected and the audience reception reflected this. A fantastic night for Fantasias.